Abnormal desert tortoise behaviour

arttoons

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I am at my wits end. My desert tortoise (50 year old male) lives outside year round (I'm in Phoenix AZ and have had him 8 years) and has had a normal behaviour of coming out of his den in about April and for the summer comes out daily for his march around the yard, chasing the dogs and chomping on grass. This year has been different - he came out of his den in April - had his normal behaviour for about a month - and since then does not come out of his den unless I put food out on the ground in front of his entrance. He eats and then goes directly back to his den. I have tried to figure out what has changed - we do have a feral (but pretty domesticated) colony of cats in the area - i thought maybe they were bothering him. I put up a trail cam to see if anything was going in or out of his burrow OR if he was coming out and I did not see it. There is nothing to see - no one going in and him not coming out. I have had the vet look at him - eyes are clear and bright, no nasal discharge etc. I have been putting food out about every 3 days to make sure he doesn't starve. My questions are: has anyone had this kind of behaviour before, how long can a tortoise go without eating, or any ideas on how to break this cycle? I appreciate any advice there is!
 

arttoons

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No injuries... i have examined legs, neck, head and tail - anything that is outside of his shell - he was not happy about it but he has always been a grumpy boy - i am thinking about an xray to rule anything else out but my vet thinks i am being extreme
 

SasquatchTortoise

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No injuries... i have examined legs, neck, head and tail - anything that is outside of his shell - he was not happy about it but he has always been a grumpy boy - i am thinking about an xray to rule anything else out but my vet thinks i am being extreme
hmm I don't know. I have no experience with injuries
What species of tortoise?
 

Tom

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I am at my wits end. My desert tortoise (50 year old male) lives outside year round (I'm in Phoenix AZ and have had him 8 years) and has had a normal behaviour of coming out of his den in about April and for the summer comes out daily for his march around the yard, chasing the dogs and chomping on grass. This year has been different - he came out of his den in April - had his normal behaviour for about a month - and since then does not come out of his den unless I put food out on the ground in front of his entrance. He eats and then goes directly back to his den. I have tried to figure out what has changed - we do have a feral (but pretty domesticated) colony of cats in the area - i thought maybe they were bothering him. I put up a trail cam to see if anything was going in or out of his burrow OR if he was coming out and I did not see it. There is nothing to see - no one going in and him not coming out. I have had the vet look at him - eyes are clear and bright, no nasal discharge etc. I have been putting food out about every 3 days to make sure he doesn't starve. My questions are: has anyone had this kind of behaviour before, how long can a tortoise go without eating, or any ideas on how to break this cycle? I appreciate any advice there is!
It has been much hotter in June this year than normal. It got hotter sooner than usual and stayed damn hot. We normally don't get over 100 here until July, but we've been over 100 for most of June. They go underground to avoid the heat.

Dogs and tortoises should never share the same space. It simply isn't safe and can't be made safe. He may be avoiding the activity of the dogs. Don't know why he didn't do that previously, but perhaps he finally realized he should steer clear of the "predators" patrolling his neighborhood. It may have been something as simple as one of the dogs coming up and sniffing him in the face.

Another possibility is a bladder stone. This will make them more lethargic and also suppress appetite. How often do you soak him? What do you feed? How many water sources does he have and are the water sources shaded? An x-ray can confirm or deny this possibility and also show you if there is a blockage or foreign body of some sort.

What do you feed him? Grocery store foods tend to make them eat rocks to correct the imbalances. Does most of your tortoise food come from the grocery store?
 

arttoons

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It has been much hotter in June this year than normal. It got hotter sooner than usual and stayed damn hot. We normally don't get over 100 here until July, but we've been over 100 for most of June. They go underground to avoid the heat.

Dogs and tortoises should never share the same space. It simply isn't safe and can't be made safe. He may be avoiding the activity of the dogs. Don't know why he didn't do that previously, but perhaps he finally realized he should steer clear of the "predators" patrolling his neighborhood. It may have been something as simple as one of the dogs coming up and sniffing him in the face.

Another possibility is a bladder stone. This will make them more lethargic and also suppress appetite. How often do you soak him? What do you feed? How many water sources does he have and are the water sources shaded? An x-ray can confirm or deny this possibility and also show you if there is a blockage or foreign body of some sort.

What do you feed him? Grocery store foods tend to make them eat rocks to correct the imbalances. Does most of your tortoise food come from the grocery store?
Phoenix usually hits 100 in June..we had a week of extreme heat but this behavior started before then. My dogs are old pugs and they have been together for the last 8 years with no problem so they are not much h bigger than him and he chases them around the yard so I am positive that's not it. He has his own soaking pool in the shade and he is free range...he eats the Bermuda grass in the yard and about once a week gets kale or some other treat ...i have only been supplementing his food so he doesnt starve..its been a variety of kale, red lettuce, tomatoes and other leafy greens for that...no store bought food.i think I am going to have the xray done to rule out stones. I just wondered if anyone had seen this behaivour before and how they handled it.
 

Yvonne G

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I think it's probably ok. Desert tortoises sometimes estivate in summer. Don't know why he never did before. Would it be possible for you to pound a few T-posts in the ground in his yard, string some drip line along the tops of the posts, then punch in a few sprinkler-type drip emitters along the pipe. This would cool the air a bit for him. Are you allowed to plant stuff? I don't know what your water restrictions are. Tortoises welcome large shrubs to hide under.
 

arttoons

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I think it's probably ok. Desert tortoises sometimes estivate in summer. Don't know why he never did before. Would it be possible for you to pound a few T-posts in the ground in his yard, string some drip line along the tops of the posts, then punch in a few sprinkler-type drip emitters along the pipe. This would cool the air a bit for him. Are you allowed to plant stuff? I don't know what your water restrictions are. Tortoises welcome large shrubs to hide under.
Hi Yvonne - he has a bunch of bushes to hide under... my yard is a bit of a jungle... lol... his burrow has a bush growing directly over it so its not in the sun... i am wondering if i just dont supplement feed if he would get hungry enough and come out to graze... how long can a tort go without food?
 

Maro2Bear

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Tortoises can go a very long time without eating. Does your tort ever come out? It sounds like it must be since you are feeding treats. Maybe you can keep the dogs away for a few days & see if that changes anything. Maybe just hot, tired, old & grumpy. 🐢
 

arttoons

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When I put the food outside his burrow he waits until I go back inside to come out...I am wondering if he has just gotten spoiled having the food come to him...I will still get an xray to rule out everything else then wait him out...I will update in a week :)
 

bioteach

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Good morning,
I also live in Phoenix and I've had my girl for a while too - she is about 25 years old. On the advice of my vet (Dr. K in Cave Creek) I only feed her desert plants such as Mexican Petunia, Bermuda grass, Hibiscus, Yellow Bells, and Globe Mallow. These foods are very attractive to her and she devours them. When the cactus fruit is ripe I offer it; but she usually doesn't go for it. Her normal behavior is to wander around early in the day and eat her fill. The rest of the day she tucks herself into the Hibiscus hedge in the deep shade. It is interesting that when it rains she comes out and soaks even though water is available all of the time.

Dr. K. performs a pre-hibernation check in August and he palpates for stones, and eggs (because my tortoise is female). He has never suggested an X-Ray.

I also have a dog who is very gentle but curious. As a result, I have a gated fence separating her enclosure from the rest of the yard. Dogs can mistake a tortoise for a toy or prey and cause havoc. Please stay in touch and let me know how your guy is doing.
 

arttoons

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Good morning,
I also live in Phoenix and I've had my girl for a while too - she is about 25 years old. On the advice of my vet (Dr. K in Cave Creek) I only feed her desert plants such as Mexican Petunia, Bermuda grass, Hibiscus, Yellow Bells, and Globe Mallow. These foods are very attractive to her and she devours them. When the cactus fruit is ripe I offer it; but she usually doesn't go for it. Her normal behavior is to wander around early in the day and eat her fill. The rest of the day she tucks herself into the Hibiscus hedge in the deep shade. It is interesting that when it rains she comes out and soaks even though water is available all of the time.

Dr. K. performs a pre-hibernation check in August and he palpates for stones, and eggs (because my tortoise is female). He has never suggested an X-Ray.

I also have a dog who is very gentle but curious. As a result, I have a gated fence separating her enclosure from the rest of the yard. Dogs can mistake a tortoise for a toy or prey and cause havoc. Please stay in touch and let me know how your guy is doing.
Hi bioteach - i have planted all the desert plants you mentioned and he wont eat anything but the hibiscus and bermuda. I had to move the hibiscus plants to the front yard because he was destroying them :)
And then NOW i feel like a fool... guess who came out late yesterday afternoon... up to the porch to say hi, wandered out the yard to munch some bermuda... i tell ya its as bad as trying to feed a toddler... you never know what will work! He is bright eyed and bushy tailed... chasing the dogs like nothing ever happened.. i don't worry about the dogs... they actively avoid him and will run to me if he gets to close to them. The reason i was saying xray was that i have the ability with my son being 3rd year vet student and other vets in the family too - just none super familiar with torts.
I want to thank everyone for the comments and support - I will update to let you know if he is continuing to be his tortoise self or relapses.
- Lynn
 

Lyn W

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Is he drinking plenty or self soaking in something like a large water dish?
I don't know anything about desert torts so they may be different, but generally torts can go longer without food than water.
I hope he's back to normal soon.
 

Deek

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We have 2 California Desert Tortoises. His diet should be more varied. I read a research paper by a leading scientist who studies Desert Tortoises and they eat like 40+ plants in the wild. There is a lot of research out there, if you can read scientific papers. If not, have you ever tried contacting the California Turtle and Tortoise Club? They are recommended by the The Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area, who have been studying Desert Tortoises and their native habitat (and the destructive influences from humans on such) since the 1980's. I will include links to their site.
Since you live in a Desert area, Nopales is one thing they can and will eat (the green fronds), you can find them at a Mexican grocery or I get mine at 99 Cent Only stores. If possible, anything they are feed from our food chain needs to be organic.

Also, any fruits, including cactus fruits (or flowers) should be given in small quantities, like you would give a young child candy. They may love it, but it's not something that is nutritionally plentiful, and it can disrupt their gut flora. The California Desert and Tortoise Club may be able to help, if you contact them too. We live in Sacramento, CA. We rescued our Tortoises from some people who were beyond irresponsible (and illegal, BTW), allowing their captive male and female to reproduce. They had 11 tortoise babies living in a 6' x 8' enclosure on concrete for 11 years. They came to use with toenails turning upward and pyramiding on their shells. The "suggested" food list the owners gave us was appalling (they were founding members of the Sacramento Tortoise Club, which I do NOT recommend). They fed them grapes, lettuce, lots of fruits and veggie...nothing a tortoise in the wild would choose. The oxalate level of the foods they were feeding was atrocious and obvious why they had pyramiding shells.
Here's what we feed ours, after extensive research on their natural diet, and then trying to match the taxonomical families, species and genus to what we can get locally, and monitor oxalate levels in each. I did this research about 4 years ago, so I no longer have all the links saved, but here was the result of my studying. Of course, I am not tortoise expert, but I do have a Bachelor of Science degree and I know how to critique scientific papers:

Anything from the Chicory Family. (Endive, Escarole, Radicchio) (low oxalates)
Dandelion Leaves (low oxalates)
Wild Grape Leaves (we have a plentiful supply in our area, organic) (low oxalates)
Mulberry Leaves (low oxalates)
Fresh and dry alfalfa (low oxalates)
Nopales (low oxalates)
Native Nutsedge (low oxalates)
Small amounts of clover found in our yard
Cabbage sparingly (moderate amount of oxalates given a lower amount in conjunction w/ other low oxalate foods)
Occasionally they get sprouts (alfalfa or radish)
Sparingly they get:
Cactus fruits
Rose petals (from our yard, organic---commercial roses are COVERED in chemicals)
2 or 3 bites of watermelon (with their meal), once a week in summer (they LOVE it)
And they have access to passion flower (spp.) vine, but they don't seem interested in it.
I do observe them occasionally munching on Bermuda grass in our yard. I just trust they know they need a nutritional component in it, or just desire a change of taste.
Ours have the run of the majority of back yard. We have a grass area and an area we let go dry, like their native environment. They are very active in the morning hours, retreat and hunker down in shade from about noon to 5 pm, then are active again.

As a side note, I think these animals can see the color red (which means they have more developed color cones in their eyes than my doggies have, lol), because when I put food on their food board, they go straight for the red colored things (radicchio, watermelon, rose petals, cactus fruit).

One more thing: Your tortoise may be getting old or close to the end of it's life at 50 y.o. Perhaps this is age-related slowing?

The DTRNA: https://tortoise-tracks.org/research
The California Turtle and Tortoise Club, Desert Tortoise Care Sheet: http://tortoise.org/general/descare.html

Good luck!
 

Tom

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We have 2 California Desert Tortoises. His diet should be more varied. I read a research paper by a leading scientist who studies Desert Tortoises and they eat like 40+ plants in the wild. There is a lot of research out there, if you can read scientific papers. If not, have you ever tried contacting the California Turtle and Tortoise Club? They are recommended by the The Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area, who have been studying Desert Tortoises and their native habitat (and the destructive influences from humans on such) since the 1980's. I will include links to their site.
Since you live in a Desert area, Nopales is one thing they can and will eat (the green fronds), you can find them at a Mexican grocery or I get mine at 99 Cent Only stores. If possible, anything they are feed from our food chain needs to be organic.

Also, any fruits, including cactus fruits (or flowers) should be given in small quantities, like you would give a young child candy. They may love it, but it's not something that is nutritionally plentiful, and it can disrupt their gut flora. The California Desert and Tortoise Club may be able to help, if you contact them too. We live in Sacramento, CA. We rescued our Tortoises from some people who were beyond irresponsible (and illegal, BTW), allowing their captive male and female to reproduce. They had 11 tortoise babies living in a 6' x 8' enclosure on concrete for 11 years. They came to use with toenails turning upward and pyramiding on their shells. The "suggested" food list the owners gave us was appalling (they were founding members of the Sacramento Tortoise Club, which I do NOT recommend). They fed them grapes, lettuce, lots of fruits and veggie...nothing a tortoise in the wild would choose. The oxalate level of the foods they were feeding was atrocious and obvious why they had pyramiding shells.
Here's what we feed ours, after extensive research on their natural diet, and then trying to match the taxonomical families, species and genus to what we can get locally, and monitor oxalate levels in each. I did this research about 4 years ago, so I no longer have all the links saved, but here was the result of my studying. Of course, I am not tortoise expert, but I do have a Bachelor of Science degree and I know how to critique scientific papers:

Anything from the Chicory Family. (Endive, Escarole, Radicchio) (low oxalates)
Dandelion Leaves (low oxalates)
Wild Grape Leaves (we have a plentiful supply in our area, organic) (low oxalates)
Mulberry Leaves (low oxalates)
Fresh and dry alfalfa (low oxalates)
Nopales (low oxalates)
Native Nutsedge (low oxalates)
Small amounts of clover found in our yard
Cabbage sparingly (moderate amount of oxalates given a lower amount in conjunction w/ other low oxalate foods)
Occasionally they get sprouts (alfalfa or radish)
Sparingly they get:
Cactus fruits
Rose petals (from our yard, organic---commercial roses are COVERED in chemicals)
2 or 3 bites of watermelon (with their meal), once a week in summer (they LOVE it)
And they have access to passion flower (spp.) vine, but they don't seem interested in it.
I do observe them occasionally munching on Bermuda grass in our yard. I just trust they know they need a nutritional component in it, or just desire a change of taste.
Ours have the run of the majority of back yard. We have a grass area and an area we let go dry, like their native environment. They are very active in the morning hours, retreat and hunker down in shade from about noon to 5 pm, then are active again.

As a side note, I think these animals can see the color red (which means they have more developed color cones in their eyes than my doggies have, lol), because when I put food on their food board, they go straight for the red colored things (radicchio, watermelon, rose petals, cactus fruit).

One more thing: Your tortoise may be getting old or close to the end of it's life at 50 y.o. Perhaps this is age-related slowing?

The DTRNA: https://tortoise-tracks.org/research
The California Turtle and Tortoise Club, Desert Tortoise Care Sheet: http://tortoise.org/general/descare.html

Good luck!
You have a few of the common misconceptions that circulate around in the tortoise world, and I'd like to help you catch up to speed with the members of this forum. We've learned a lot in the last decade or so. Online sources, government sources, vets, and CTTC are some of the worst offenders with terrible care info, and they don't want to hear it when people tell them otherwise. They fancy themselves "experts" and ignore the three decades of findings from someone who has raised dozens of DT hatchlings in myriad ways, as well as hundreds of hatchlings of other species, and done side-by-side experiments, in a captive environment (which is what we are all talking about), and they instead spout weather and climate statistics that have little to do with an animal living primarily underground.

First it is wonderful that you rescued these animals. I cannot understand why you would be against breeding an endangered species that makes a wonderful tortoise pet, but I do know that it is illegal. That is a terrible shame in my opinion, but that is a discussion for another time that I'd be happy to have.

Most of the care info given for this species is all wrong, especially when applied to babies. Following this old wrong info that is based on misconceptions of how they live in the wild, often results in the death of the animals. With this in mind, I'll lay some info on you:
-The diet items you recommend are excellent. Top notch and I use and grow most of the same ones myself. I prefer fresh grown alfalfa, in small amounts once in a while to dry alfalfa hay, but other than that I say thumbs up to all that you mentioned. I'd add the there are some darn good ways to supplement their diets now too. And "hell yes" to lots of opuntia pads!
-I don't know why you have fixated on oxalates, but oxalates are not the boogeyman that we once thought they were. Tortoises handle and process oxalates, and many other compounds, differently than mammals do. Oxalates do not cause pyramiding or bladder stones. Both of those are caused by dryness and dehydration.
-Fruit: I say: "If it is so bad that you can only feed a small amount once in a while, why feed it at all?" Instead I recommend people offer hibiscus flowers, dandelions or opuntia "fruits" as treats.
-Pyramiding is CAUSED by growth in conditions that are too dry. Not by food, not by too much protein, not by lack of calcium, not by neglect, and not by too small of an enclosure. All of these things are bad, but they don't cause pyramiding.
-The biggest killers of these tortoises are dehydration and dogs, in that order. Yes they are desert animals, but the are masters at avoiding the extremes by living a fossorial lifestyle. When we house them above ground in our yards, they are exposed to temperature and humidity extremes that they would not experience in the wild. They need to be soaked regularly.
-Outside all day is NOT good for baby DTs, contrary to popular opinion. Some limited sunshine for babies and little ones is good, but "housing them outside" is NOT better for them or good. Adults yes. Babies no. A baby in the wild would remain hidden and tucked in to tight cover most of every day. If it didn't, it would be eaten by a raven or coyote very quickly. In our captive enclosures, they feel safe and walk around out in the open all day, exposing themselves to conditions that would seldom be endured in the wild.

Questions and arguments are welcome. Feel free to ask who the heck I am to say such things, and make me explain why these assertions are correct and all the other assertions you've read over the years are wrong. We are all here to talk torts!
 

arttoons

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Thank you for the educational stuff Tom! My guy has a shallow pool that he can soak in...should I still make a mandatory soak? He has a beautifully shaped shell...
 

Tom

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Thank you for the educational stuff Tom! My guy has a shallow pool that he can soak in...should I still make a mandatory soak? He has a beautifully shaped shell...
Short answer is yes. Soak him anyway.

Some would argue that if the tortoise drinks and self soaks, then you don't "need" to soak them. Its not "essential" in their opinion. If the tortoise drinks enough water each time it drinks, if it drinks often enough, if it feels comfortable in its enclosure, if it feels comfortable about its water source, if its water source is cool enough on a hot summer day, if its water source is warm enough on a cool fall or spring day after a cold SoCal night, if, if, if , if... I end this argument and any other arguments with this: Soaking more than is needed does NO harm whatsoever. Not soaking enough can kill them one way or another.

There are so many reasons why a tortoise might not drink enough on its own, or why a tortoise who used to drink enough now doesn't. Soaking puts your hands and eyes on your tortoise every time you do it. Problems are discovered and corrected early this way. We had one arguer here that told me that he sometimes didn't even see his small tortoises in his well planted "naturalistic" enclosures for weeks! I don't think neglect is a good strategy for long term tortoise health! Referring to him, not you, of course.

Soaking has many benefits. If your tortoise is already well hydrated, then it won't stick its head down to drink, but it will still defecate, walk, take on some water, pee, and get examined by you for any problems.You'll notice if the tortoise has any injures, if it feels heavy or light, if it behaving differently, if its eyes look good, etc... If your tortoise is off hiding in its burrow or under a bush for weeks on end andl you assume it is getting plenty of water on its own, you might just find it dead one day.
 

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